Friday, October 3, 2014

Adventures in Cambodia

Although our family has travelled to many places, I don’t remember the last time I blogged about our travels.  Yes, I post lots of pictures on facebook, but I’m usually too lazy to recall the details of our trips once we are back.  I just come back knowing we had some great family time and saw some cool new things.  However, our trip to Cambodia was different. 

We did so much and yet it never felt stressful, the kids never complained, and everything was just easy and magical and wonderful.  I learned about Cambodia.  I got to see a small glimpse of real life there, which gave me a lot to think about.  Of course, we were tourists and we did lots of tourist things, and enjoyed every minute of it!  A few of you have asked me about our itinerary and how we structured our time, so that’s what I’ll give you in this post. 

 What this post is not is a history lesson or a travel essay---it’s just what our family did and some practical ideas if you are planning a trip there.  There is a lot I could share about what we learned, but that’s not what this particular post is about. Please let me know if you have any questions.  We loved our time there!

Saturday, Travel Day:
We arrived on Saturday night and someone from our hotel picked us up at the airport.  When we arrived at the airport, we needed to get a visa for Cambodia, which was 20 USD, and was fairly easy to get.

Our hotel was about 15 minutes from the airport.  We stayed at Cyclo D’Angkor, a charming boutique hotel a bit off the main area.  The staff at the hotel were wonderful.  We checked into our room and had dinner there.  It happened to be William’s birthday and they took it upon themselves to get him a cake, decorate it personally, and surprised all of us by dimming the lights and singing to him.  It was so sweet!  
We told the manager, Ham, what our plans were for the next few days and he helped us arrange a van and an English-speaking guide.  We were completely aware that we could have accomplished the same thing with a Tuk Tuk and finding a guide on our own, but we were happy to pay a bit more for convenience and someone to save us the hassle (not that there would be a big one there) of figuring things out on our own.  We knew where we wanted to go and we wanted an air-conditioned van to take us there, and a knowledgeable guide to accompany us and tell us the history and other tips.  We loved the driver, Jeng Lan, and the guide, Won, the hotel hooked us up with.    The charge depended on how far we went, how many hours, etc. 

Sunday:  First Full Day
So, on Sunday we had breakfast at 6:30 at the hotel and left at about 7.  We entered Angkor Wat from the back and it seemed we were the only people there.  This was one of my favorite times of temple exploring.  Magical is a word that sort of can’t be overused when you are visiting these places, and that is how this felt.  I think we spent at least a couple of hours there, and even the kids were interested in the guide’s descriptions of the carvings and the history.  Our kids asked him lots of questions and in true inquiry fashion, shared their wonderings with us.  It was truly wonderful, all of us learning and exploring together.
We then headed to Ta Prohm. This is the one where part of Tomb Raider was filmed.  It has all the over-grown trees and lush green everywhere.  This is the one described by many as “other wordly” and yes, that’s exactly how it feels.  None of it seemed real---I didn’t want to leave.  The kids just explored endlessly---everything was fascinating to them.  We spent at least an hour or two here and then it started pouring!  We enjoyed a nice jog in the mud and then headed back to the hotel to clean up!

We took a tuk-tuk to lunch (always 2 USD) and very easy to get at our hotel.  Lunch was at The Blue Pumpkin, recommended by friends who said they ate most of their meals there.  They have comfy couches where you sit with trays and of course the kids loved it . The food was great, smoothies were amazing, and service was good.

We rested a bit and went for a swim at our hotel.  Later that night, we again took a tuk tuk to the downtown area, just 5 minutes away, and we all did the crazy fish-nibbing-on-your-feet massage.  It was really fun (and creepy), and two of our kids ended up doing it 2 or 3 more times during our trip! 

We then had dinner at the Mexican place on the corner (this place and Blue Pumpkin were our go-to places the whole trip).   Loved the food here!  Amazing food, again---great smoothies and shakes, awesome chips and salsa, incredible service.  We just loved it, so we kept going back.

We then did a family foot massage and headed back to the hotel.

Monday, Second Full Day:

We got up at 5 and left the hotel by 5:30, arriving at Happy Horse Ranch before 6.  We did a sunrise ride, each of us on our own horse, for one hour.  There were incredible views, and this was just a serene and unique experience.  There was a guide leading us and I asked for 3 helpers to come along since the kids are not experienced (not that William and I are super experienced either), and I wanted helpers there just in case the kids couldn’t handle the horses.  It was easy and fun, and the kids loved it.  My younger two (the same ones who kept going back for the fish massage) even had the horse trot and they were fine with that.  I enjoyed that too, but Abraham and William preferred to just walk, which was great too.  This was straight-forward, easy, and very well-organized.  The price was 28 USD per person.  We, of course, tipped the guide and the helpers, which we were very happy to do. This was another wonderful experience.
We came back to the hotel and had breakfast and then had a very lazy day.  We read and the kids played.  William and I took turns going downstairs for oil massages right in the hotel.  We napped and just hung out, which is what you’re supposed to do on vacation, right?  Then, at night, we swam and went out to eat at either the Mexican Place or the Blue Pumpkin.

Tuesday, Third Full Day:
We left around eight.  We headed to the floating villages, per Annabelle’s suggestion. She really wanted to do this and it ended up being very cool.  First we drove to the place where all the boats are.  We got on a boat, and rode for almost an hour though a flooded area, which eventually fed into a lake.  This was an old, sort of rickety boat, with an 11-year old driving it.  He was Alex’s size, maybe a tiny bit taller.  It was a silent ride and we were all lost in our thoughts. 

Cambodia is a poor country and the little guy driving our boat was a reminder of that.  Our guide had talked to us a lot about the country’s history and economic situation and I think we all had a lot to think about, even though it was only the second day in the country. The scenery was also just so beautiful that there was really no need to talk.  We rode through, seeing houses on stilts and people going about their lives.  Again, we just felt like we were learning and seeing a whole other way of life.
We then transferred to a little canoe (2 actually) and rode through what I can only call the jungle.  Our kids enjoyed sharing some cookies and candies with the local kids who rode up to us in their boats.  Once we entered the jungle though, there were no other boats.  A couple of times we thought we were lost (there was a young girl leading Abraham and I and I think it was her mom leading Will and the other two kids).  It was cool and peaceful, yet surreal. 

After this, we had to go back the 45 minutes in the original boat and by this time we were all hot and tired.  We went with our driver and guide to a Khmer restaurant situated outside, with hammocks to rest in while we waited for our food.  The food and service again, were great.

From here we drove out to Beng Melea, the “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” place, for lack of a better description.  This is the one that has not been restored and is literally in ruins.  It’s about an hour outside of Siem Reap.  Much of it was shaded so although it was hot, this was also very worthwhile.

That night, we did another foot massage, walked around the downtown area and ate at one our favorites.  Tuk Tuks are everywhere and it is incredibly easy to do things.
After dinner we went to the Circus, which is really not a great name for what we experienced.  It is an incredible, I mean, INCREDIBLE dance and acrobatic drama, all done in a small little “circus tent” but the performers were so incredibly talented.  It was an amazing show and all the proceeds go to building this charitable program to help promote the arts in Cambodia and give young people a chance out of poverty.  They were incredible! This was a very tiring day and we all slept very well that night!

Wednesday, Fourth Full Day:

We slept in a bit and got started around 9, heading to Bayon Temple.  This is the one with all the faces and my kids loved this.  I found by the time we got to this temple, we had learned so much about Buddhism, Hinduism, the history, the kings, and the structure of the temples----time had gone very quickly and we had been exposed to a lot, even though this would make only the fourth temple site that we visited.

After this we went to the Silk Village and learned about silk-making, the process from the worms-cocoons-getting the silk, dying the silk, weaving the silk----I still could not get my head around this process.  Absolutely amazing and our older two kids enjoyed this.  Alex was a bit bored at this point, but he hung in there.  We bought a few beautiful items in their gift shop and then headed to lunch.

Our lunch was at a very cool Khmer restaurant.  Annabelle and I kept ordering fried spring rolls everywhere we went and then comparing them as if we are Master Chef critics. That’s just a random note---the spring rolls everywhere were great.  This place had a nice ambiance and we loved the flavors of the food.

We had the chance to go on another tour of how silk paintings or wood carvings are done, but at this point, we were really tired and I knew the kids would not last through another tour, so we spent about 30 minutes picking up a couple of souvenirs and called it good. 

The evening included walking around, enjoying ice cream at the Blue Pumpkin and beginning to pack and organize.

Thursday:  Travel Day
After breakfast, the kids and I swam and William headed to a massage class, which he loved.  He was trained in the art of Cambodian massage (well, as much training as you can receive in 2 hours).  I’m very much looking forward to him showing me what he learned!  The kids and I ordered smoothies by the pool and had a great time.

Lunch was at our lovely little Mexican place, followed by one last family foot massage.  Annabelle and Alex also did one last fish massage.  Then we were off.

Our time in Cambodia was wonderful.  It’s always good to get away somewhere new with the people we love most so nothing can top that.  But doing it in such a beautiful and interesting place was truly magical.    We’ve done trips where we barely leave the resort and others that are more active.  This was quite active in some ways and yet wonderfully peaceful and relaxing.  We loved Cambodia and we will definitely go back. 

I hope this information is helpful to anyone who wanted to know about our trip or who is interested in going there.   I can tell you that we loved it and we highly recommend it!

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